Ethical College Admissions: Football Factories

Issues related to sports powerhouses play out at elite academic institutions, not just those playing for Division I championships, writes Jim Jump.

January 8, 2018
 

The college football season ends tonight when conference rivals Alabama and Georgia face off in Atlanta in the College Football Playoff championship game. By the end of the evening we will have answered the question of which university will be crowned national champion of college football’s highest division, the Football Bowl Subdivision.

There are, of course, broader questions that won’t be answered. Does the final pairing constitute evidence that the Southeastern Conference continues to be the premier conference? Should Alabama receive an automatic berth in the championship game every year? Is the playoff system biased against teams like Central Florida, and should the playoff be expanded beyond four teams? Do we really need all those bowl games featuring teams with 6-6 records?

The questions above are grist for sports talk radio, but there are also more substantial questions that could impact the future of college football. Will the new December signing date make the recruiting process more sane, or will it provide a second opportunity for the spectacle of high school kids receiving attention and adulation based on which college’s baseball hat they pick up and put on? How will continued research into football-related brain injuries impact the sport?

The essential question regarding college football has always been whether it contributes to or is at odds with the educational mission of colleges and universities. That is not a new question, as unsavory recruiting tactics and emphasis on winning rather than teaching have been present from the early days of the college game. I have previously argued that big-time intercollegiate athletics should abandon the student-athlete pretense in favor of making football and basketball players paid employees of a university’s advancement/marketing operation.

The most recent exploration into the tension between education and football was published during the holidays. What made this article different was that it appeared not on a sports website but rather at Slate.com, it focused not on Division I but rather Division III, and the football “factory” in question is Wesleyan University, in Connecticut.

Wesleyan is on no one’s list of colleges that overemphasize athletics, and many football fans -- and current Wesleyan students -- may not even be aware that it has a football team. Wesleyan is a different kind of place, a bastion of ultraliberal thinking and activism, and the informal campus motto is “Keep Wes Weird,” a close second to the University of Chicago’s “The Place Where Fun Goes to Die” as a branding slogan. The last time I visited the Middletown, Conn., campus I saw a security guard with a Grace Jones haircut. Wesleyan’s football claim to fame is that it is the alma mater of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

So what leads the Slate article to call Wesleyan “the liberal arts football factory” and ask if it is compromising its academic reputation to build an athletic cash cow?

When Michael Roth became Wesleyan’s president in 2007, he was pushed by alumni to make the university more competitive with its Little Three rivals Amherst and Williams Colleges, both Division III athletic powerhouses with sterling academic reputations. Williams has won the DIII Directors Cup for all-around athletic excellence in 18 of the 20 years it has been awarded, and Amherst is often in the top five.

Roth responded by convincing Williams football coach Mike Whalen to return to his alma mater in 2010. In his third season, Wesleyan won the Little Three for the first time since 1970. Whalen, now athletics director, argues that athletic success has contributed both to Wesleyan’s record number of applicants and the success of a recent $500 million fund-raising campaign. That’s the argument for football being a “cash cow.”

The evidence connecting Division III athletic success and success in admissions and fund-raising is lacking and open to interpretation. The so-called “Flutie Factor” is debatable enough for big-time DI institutions, but does it exist at all in DIII?

The economic benefits Wesleyan derives from athletics are independent from, but loosely related to, fund-raising success. The athletes who attend Wesleyan generally come from more affluent families and require less financial aid than other students, and that is beneficial, perhaps even necessary, for an institution that had to abandon need-blind admissions back in 2012. Enrolling lower-need students takes pressure off raising endowment for financial aid.

It is true that close to a dozen DIII members have added football in the past 10 years. Increasing enrollment, particularly male enrollment, was a major motivation behind those decisions. Wesleyan is in a different situation. It is not struggling for enrollment, and its percentage of male students (46 percent) is solid for a liberal arts college.

For Wesleyan, decisions about athletics and athletic recruiting are not tied to survival but to campus culture. At selective institutions where there are more qualified applicants than admission places, admission is a zero-sum game. Decisions to enroll one kind of student mean that other students aren’t admitted.

Ten percent of Wesleyan students are admitted through an athletic hook, and under Whalen’s leadership the athletics department has increased active recruiting for athletes to the point that almost all starters on school teams were recruited to Wesleyan to play their sport. Those who most benefit from what has been termed “affirmative action for athletes” are white men in the “helmet” sports -- football, hockey, lacrosse. Many of them have mediocre academic records compared with the rest of the applicant pool.

The question is what does that do to a college’s culture. Successful athletic teams may help develop a sense of pride and community, but there can also be a divide between athletes and the rest of the student body that plays out in the classroom, in housing and in campus activities.

Athletes can also be subjected to mixed messages. I have talked with several former athletes at colleges like Wesleyan and its rivals who chose the DIII experience for the combination of great academics and competitive athletics, only to arrive on campus and be told by their coaches that the sport always came first. As a former DIII college coach, I find that sad.

It could be worse. Back in 2000 Swarthmore College, a liberal arts college with a reputation and culture similar to Wesleyan, announced that it was dropping football. Its president at the time defended the decision by stating that football brought too many “normal people” to the college. What is “normal” obviously depends on the norms at an institution, but Swarthmore led those of us who want to consider ourselves normal to wonder why that is such a bad thing. It obviously prefers to be a different kind of factory.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Read more by

Back to Top